A traditional Ashkenazi Shabbat table will often be graced with at least one kugel. Whether that kugel is noodle, potato or a more modern vegetable version will depend on the chef.
Often translated as “Shabbat pudding,” kugels are not only delicious, they also represent a taste of tradition, the origin of which is based on the specific needs of the Jewish community. At its most basic, a kugel is a baked combination of a carbohydrate (potato or noodles) with fat (oil or shmaltz) and eggs. Historically, kugels needed to be able to withstand a long and slow heating process, as they were often placed in the local baker’s oven before Shabbat and remained there until the afternoon meal the next day. In this way, Jews avoided any prohibited cooking on Shabbat.
The word “kugel” is actually German in origin. It means “ball” and is an allusion to the types of round pans that were commonly used to make kugel. Sometimes the small kugel pan was placed inside a larger pot containing cholent. Many kugels today are square.
Before the appearance of more modern variations such as broccoli kugel, cauliflower kugel and even onion kugel, which are all more like souffles, traditionally, most kugels were made with either potatoes or noodles (lukshen in Yiddish). Lukshen kugels were often sweetened with cinnamon, raisins and apples. A separate type of kugel is made with sweet cheese. These are served after Yom Kippur, when a dairy meal is often eaten.
Any discussion of kugel would be incomplete without mentioning Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) kugel. This kugel, which is still made in its original round shape, is unique in both taste and appearance. Made with thin lukshen, the secret of Yerushalmi kugel’s sweet and savory taste (as well as its color) is the combination of caramelized sugar and pepper–the essential ingredients.
There are those that say that the origin of kugel goes back to the days of the Israelites in the wilderness. When the manna came down, there was always a layer of dew below and above the manna. Similarly, a kugel is made with crust on top and bottom with filling in between.
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